Summit Notes: State of Innovation

Reporting On / by Jussi Rosendahl /

Seed and The Council on Competitiveness brought together thought leaders from science, business, academia, and design to discuss the future of innovation.

On June 23, Seed Media Group and The Council on Competitiveness convened a cadre of America’s thought leaders in science, business, and education for the State of Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. Panelists and speakers addressed the key roles of design, cross-disciplinary collaboration, comprehensive policy, and science itself in preserving and enhancing a climate of innovation and future competitiveness for America. What follows are some of the days top highlights.

Neri Oxman, Presidential Research Fellow in Design Computation, MIT
Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art
Ben Fry, Design Director, Seed Media Group

After an introductory panel on the role of business in innovation, featuring Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Chad Holliday, chairman of the board of DuPont, the topic of discussion shifted to the role of science in design.

In the day’s first “Show and Tell” segment, Neri Oxman described her interdisciplinary design initiative, Materialecology, which combines material science, computer science, and ecology to better understand natural processes through their byproducts. Examining and explaining these sometimes-hidden processes and relationships is one of her design objectives, she said: “Science can’t be taught without context. It needs narrative.” Oxman also showed off some of her ongoing projects, including a customizable wrist glove for treating carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as a prototype of “breathable glass” that allows natural ventilation in buildings without open windows.

A panel discussion between Ben Fry; Julie Lasky, the editor of the forthcoming Change Observer website; and Claudia Kotchka, a former senior executive at Procter & Gamble, followed Oxman’s presentation. Moderator Paola Antonelli started things off with a call for a wider understanding of the role of design. “Design is still treated as decoration or beautification of life,” she said. “Although it’s the designers that take revolutions from science and bring them home, down to earth, so that we all can use them as products or services.”

Expanding upon some of the themes in Oxman’s work, Antonelli presented some of the emerging areas of design that are being informed by biological processes, such as biomimicry, nanodesign, and tissue design. Design is also borrowing from the social sciences, she said, pointing to collective open-source projects and the visualization of data. The latter gets at the heart of what much of design is about: making physical the hidden needs, wants, and behaviors of people in the real world. 

Ben Fry, head of Seed Visualization and its Phyllotaxis Lab, added that successful data visualization has actually very little to do with the data collected and more to do with the rationale behind collecting the data in the first place. Data visualization, he argued, is about communicating ideas and telling a story about the people, places, and things the data represents.

George Campbell, President, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
Geoffrey West, President and Distinguished Professor, Santa Fe Institute

Explorations of how design can merge the ephemeral world of ideas and the concrete world of people continued in the next panel, called “Watercooler 3.0.” George Campbell and Geoffrey West, alongside UCLA’s Gene Block and former Under Secretary for Science at the US Department of Energy Ray Orbach, discussed the existing barriers to interdisciplinary problem solving and ways they can be brought down. “Major breakthroughs and game-changing innovations take place increasingly at the intersections of different disciplines,” Campbell said. “But it is ironic that the very structure of academia is organically resistant to fundamental organizational change.”

Science and art, Campbell added, have a deep connection to one another and should be more closely interactive in the academic world. “On a fundamental level, they have a great deal in common. Each involves investigations of objective truth, explores the essential nature of reality, relies heavily on visual representation, and embraces a deep aesthetic culture that values simplicity, elegance, and beauty.”

Bridging the gap between the two fields, Campbell presented The Cooper Union’s new building, which will replace 40 percent of the institution’s academic space. Once completed, the new landmark building in New York’s East Village will house all of the university’s programs. “This provides us a once-in-the-lifetime opportunity to imagine an ideal learning environment for the future. We want to create a kind of giant water cooler to naturally promote interdisciplinary interactions.”

The idea that encouraging people to physically interact with each other can promote the cross-pollination of their ideas was not lost on Geoffrey West. At the Santa Fe Institute, the 25-year-old center for multidisciplinary collaborations in the physical, biological, computational, and social sciences, the most important space is the kitchen, he said. It’s hard to predict where the next eureka moment will strike; it may not be in a lab or at a desk, but rather in a brainstorm over lunch or cups of tea. “That’s where we encourage the highest level of sophisticated bullshit,” West joked. “We hope that out of 100 conversations, one may lead to something that starts to get serious.”

Sendhil Mullainathan, Professor of Economics, Harvard University

In the second “Show and Tell” segment, the behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan described how social problems don’t always stem from the lack of fresh ideas or scientific solutions, but in converting them into action on the ground. He reminded the conference that in 2002, more than 450,000 children in India died due to diarrhea. “And diarrhea is a solved problem. The vast majority of these deaths were completely preventable,” Mullainathan said. “Or, worldwide, if you just could get people to take their HIV medication, you could save a lot of lives. Many times, even though you created the thing that works and put it in front of people, they don’t use it.”

Mullainathan said that this “last mile problem”—where people have all the information to act in an effective way but fail to do so—can be solved through innovations that adopt lessons from the social science of human behavior. As an example, Mullainathan used Clocky, a motorized alarm clock that jumps to the floor and rolls away while ringing, ensuring that users get out of bed to turn it off. An alarm clock has one piece of information to convey; adding wheels makes that information much more difficult to ignore. That kind of lateral thinking could be applied in many different contexts and at much larger scales, such as global health or poverty. “There are high returns to innovation in this kind of area because there are a lot of low hanging fruit—situations where behavior change can drive a huge return,” Mullainathan said.

Dan Mote, President, University of Maryland
Tomás Díaz de la Rubia, Chief Research and Development Officer,
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
E.O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

Getting down to the issue of actually implementing some of the innovative solutions proffered at the conference was the next panel: “The Problems We Will Solve.” One theme of this discussion was the challenges in creating a new generation of problem solvers, a topic that University of Maryland’s President, Dan Mote, addressed.  “Leadership at the top cannot develop an innovative enterprise,” he said. “Innovation is a culture. It’s not a thing you can teach.” According to Mote, one has to develop innovative culture across scales: individual, organizational, the community immediately outside the organization, and finally state- and country-wide. Responding to Mote’s comments from the audience, Tom Baruch, a venture capitalist, said that he sees a robust future for the US in exactly this regard. “We have a culture of honoring entrepreneurial activity and rewarding success, as opposed to what I see in many other countries. I’m very optimistic.”

In describing how “big science” can address the world’s most pressing problems, Tomás Díaz de la Rubia shared Baruch’s optimism. Díaz de la Rubia talked about the National Ignition Facility, the world’s highest-energy laser system that was officially dedicated at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory a few weeks ago. “We never talk about fusion because it’s always thought to be 50 years away. But now we are about two years away from actually doing the definitive experiments that will tell us whether we can make a miniature sun on Earth to produce energy to power the planet.”

After remarks from David E. Shaw, the noted computational biochemist, hedge fund manager, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers of Science and Technology, E.O. Wilson closed out with some sage perspective. The father of sociobiology said he was so impressed by the imaginative solutions expressed by both panelists and guests he threw out everything he was going to say. But he did give his assessment of what he considers the most fundamental problem of complexity: “understanding the origin and the nature of the bizarre human brain and of consciousness.” Without a deeper analytic understanding of the brain, all efforts in innovation and education will be ultimately lost and confused. 

Speaking with his usual avuncular charm, Wilson laid out the big picture as he sees it.  “In our existence in this ‘Star Wars’ civilization, we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. That’s a very dangerous combination,” he said.  His only prescription was to bring together, in a focused manner, the three great domains of knowledge: science, social science, and humanities.

Klaus Hoehn, Vice President, Advanced Technology and Engineering, Deere & Company
Cory Ondrejka, Executive Vice President, Digital Marketing, EMI Music

The next panel delved more deeply into the business side of innovation, joining Klaus Hoehn and Cory Ondrejka with Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon and Pinnacle Investment’s CEO James Phillips. Hoehn emphasized the need for creating the right environment for the next big idea to grow. A 173-year-old manufacturer of farm equipment might not seem like the kind of organization that is quick to reinvent its offerings, but in 2014 Deere & Company aims to have 30 percent of its products and services be totally new to market, he said. “Creativity is not at all our problem,” Hoehn said, referring to both his company and the world at large. “The art really is: How do you provide fertile ground where creativity can flourish?” Hoehn pointed out that while the world still sees America as innovative, Americans themselves are missing the point: “This country needs to get its act together and make innovation the next man-on-the-moon thing.”

EMI’s Ondrejka recognized this imperative, but was also wary of companies or executives who think such goals can be accomplished in a top-down manner. “The idea that you can take innovation and put it in a corner somewhere is about as antithetical to the idea of innovation as you can possibly get,” he said. “It’s the collisions between different knowledge networks that are crucial to innovation.”

Ryan Chin, Smart Cities Research Group, MIT

The final “Show and Tell” segment was presented by Ryan Chin, representing the MIT team that won the 2009 Buckminster Fuller Design Challenge. The Challenge awards $100,000 a year to the project that best encompasses Fuller’s vision of a prosperous and equitable future propelled by innovative problem solving. Chin’s team set to work on the intertwined challenges of pollution, energy efficiency, and congestion in reimagining urban transportation. “We started off by thinking of an ideal city, what that city would be like,” Chin said. “We then designed a car for that city.” The highly interdisciplinary team drew on the expertise of architects, mechanical engineers, computer scientists, and designers, including Neri Oxman. 

Ron Stowe, President, Arts in Education Institute
Esther Dyson, Philanthropist

Following Chin’s presentation, the final discussions of the conference were held in a “townhall” session; in the spirit of the interdisciplinary collaboration that was lauded through the day, many of the conference’s distinguished guests took this opportunity to pose questions and postulate answers with the panelists and each other.

One common topic concerned the training of future innovators, which invited lively discussion on science literacy and redefining STEM education—two fields that President Obama and Congress have identified as priorities for the future of the US. Many suggestions echoed Wilson’s idea of drawing on the three branches of knowledge but concentrated in the realm of early education. “We need to reduce and eliminate the silos between the arts and education,” Stowe said. “We must stop thinking of these as separate points of activity or creativity. They have to be integrated to get kids exited about learning.” He added that such a process is not just about producing better engineers, but creating an environment for interdisciplinary education—enabling the entire population to take full advantage of American creativity.

On education, Esther Dyson stressed the importance of science understanding in everyday life: “Life is becoming complex. If you want to manage your health and pay your own taxes, you need to understand math and statistics. Science is too valuable to waste on scientists.” She added that she sees a huge amount of innovation in the US, but what’s lacking is implementation, risk-taking, and the use of the innovations that exist. According to Dyson, the real challenge now is to blow up our existing structures, systems, and institutions and create something new out of the rubble. “Let’s be real: People live nice orderly life, they don’t want to be disrupted,” she said. “We need to be slightly more edgy here.”

Adam Bly, Founder, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief, Seed Media Group
Deborah Wince-Smith, President, Council on Competitiveness

The conference’s concluding remarks embodied what may have been the most powerful refrain from the day: We, as a nation and a species, are at a tipping point where thoughtful but decisive action can pave the way to a more prosperous and sustainable future. Adam Bly attributed this to changing winds in Washington, as well as technological advances and looming crises, but he said the key element was a widening appreciation of science and the value of the search for knowledge. Complacency about this appeal, however, can be treacherous, and Bly urged the continuing pursuit of greater scientific literacy and the merging of the “two cultures.” “Science can’t simply be this perfunctory pursuit of results; it is as romantic, as beautiful, and as complete as the arts and humanities,” he said. “We’re going to need to rethink and reframe science so it reaches all of us.”

Deborah Wince-Smith, an archeologist by training, framed this process as the journey of Odysseus to Ithaca: something with a promising endpoint, but the trip being even more rewarding. She also reflected on the juncture at which we all stand: “This is one of the greatest times in human history, and we have to help create the future.” 

To emphasize this point, Wince-Smith drew the day to a close with this passage from President Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural address:

For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say farewell. Is a new world coming? We welcome it, and we will bend it to the hopes of man.

Watch the entire archived webcast of the Summit here.

Check out photos from the day at Flickr.

Originally published July 7, 2009

Tags design education innovation policy technology

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